That’s Vegas, Baby

Aureole wine towerJust got back from NAB in Las Vegas, where even a glass of Three-Buck Chuck rings in at double digits. That makes it tough to soak up a lot of wine in Vegas, but since everything else is stratospheric (like the $23 Kobe beef burger I had the first night), the price per glass simply disappeared into the overall din. Funny how quickly $12 vodka martinis can become prudent, cost-effective investments.

Or maybe not. In fact, I dimly recall that it was after our second round of these a little before 4 in the morning that we decided we couldn’t leave Las Vegas without paying our respects at one of the seven wonders of the wine world, the glass tower of wine at Aureole. After all, think how expensive it would be to fly back later just to go to this restaurant — why, only a fool would do that. No, we were way too smart. We’d go there immediately, saving buckets of cash.

Another example of the delusional logic Vegas is famous for inspiring? You bet. But this time, the gamble paid off … lobsterstare.jpg

Indeed, Aureole didn’t disappoint. The restaurant’s centerpiece is a 42 foot stainless steel and glass tower of wine, which houses nearly 10,000 bottles at a comfortable 55 degrees. You enter the restaurant on a walkway which wraps around the tower about a third of the way up, so you pass magnum after magnum of highly tasty wine (in case of emergency, break glass?).

Better yet, wine stewards with bottle holsters winch up and down the structure to retrieve the wine you order with dinner. They claim, in fact, a steward can fly to the top of the tower in only 10 seconds – and by doing so, minimize the chance of any second thoughts you might have after drunkenly ordering aureole_latache.jpgthat $23,000 bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Strangely, they wouldn’t let us scramble n’ sample up the structure, so we had no choice but select a beverage and spur them into action.

At Aureole, you do this not by leafing through a weighty, leather-bound tome, but by clicking around one of 20 tablet computers (sleek HP Compaq Tablet PC TC1000s, to be precise) they bring to your table. Re-conceiving a wine list this way is truly brilliant. What could be an intimidating phone book of names comes to you as a sortable, cross-indexed database wrapped in a clean, intuitive interface. You start, say, by selecting the size of bottle you want, eliminating hundreds of options cluttering the field. Then, perhaps, you choose red (vs white), further paring down the list; then country or region; then price. You click on a few to begin building your own personalized list, and then search and sort around by some other metrics. In the end, you pull up the list you’ve compiled and choose not from a blur of thousands, but a crisp three or four.

(For more details about what’s going on under the hood, Microsoft’s technical gloss on it is here [Word doc download].)

If you’ve ever stared numbly at a wall of wine in a store, or a phone book-sized wine list in a restaurant, you can appreciate why this is a great idea. With a few clicks, it goes a long way toward taming one of the great undoings of wine: way too many choices and few meaningful visual clues to help make them (I’ll take the one in the bottle shape… er, the red, with the words on the label… er…).

Of course, all this gee whiz innovation comes with a price tag. We ordered a lovely 2002 Domaine Lign̬res Las Vals, a Mourv̬dre- and Syrah-based wine from the Corbi̬res region of France, which set us back $60. Considering this wine retails at around $25 (putting its wholesale price somewhere around $17), aureole_predator.jpgthat represents about a 360% markup Рnearly as high as that spiffy wine tower.

But that tower is damn spiffy. And the sommelier who helped us parse our final choices from it was incredibly laid back, passionate and knowledgeable, something that goes a long way to rationalizing any markup. And did I mention the food? Also amazing.

And besides: that’s Vegas, baby.

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